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Red bandanna honoring 9-11 hero goes perfectly with UCF's school colors

(ESPN video)

Go ahead, UCF fans, and wear your black and gold to the biggest home game of the year Saturday night against Boston College.

But don't forget to put on some red, white and blue, too.

Mostly red.

A red bandanna.

Just like the one a former Boston College lacrosse player used to wear.

His name was Welles R. Crowther, and you probably don't know who he was, but you should. On this weekend — the 10-year anniversary of those planes flying into those buildings on 9-11 — you really should.

A couple of UCF students — Neal Surrena and Garrett Weiss — had never heard of him either until they saw a segment on ESPN during the weekend telling the story of the many lives he saved on that sad, surreal morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The two students were so inspired, they took to Facebook and Twitter and have apparently persuaded thousands of other UCF students and fans to wear Welles' symbolic red bandanna to Saturday night's game between UCF and Boston College.

That's right, UCF fans will pay tribute to a Boston College grad Saturday night.

And so should Gator fans and Seminole fans and Magic fans and Heat fans. And Republicans and Democrats and blacks and whites and Christians and Muslims.

"This is bigger than football," Surrena says. "We want everybody in that stadium — UCF fans and Boston College fans — to wear red bandannas as a way to honor somebody who made the ultimate sacrifice. When you hear what he did in that final hour and what he stood for, it makes you want to live your life like he did."

Unselfishly. Courageously.

Heroically.

Like the verse from the country song somebody wrote about him a few years ago:

"With one red bandanna and that 8-year-old smile

The many lives he saved when he walked his last mile."

His father, Jefferson, gave him the red bandanna when he was just 8 years old. He told his son to always carry it because it would make him stand out and because he might need it someday. It became Welles' trademark through boyhood, through high school and through college, where he used to wear it under his lacrosse helmet at B.C.

He was a junior firefighter as a teenager and always dreamed of being a real firefighter someday, but after college, he decided to give Wall Street a try instead. And when the second plane hit the second building, he was a 24-year-old equities trader with an office on the 104 floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Chaos ensued. Smoke engulfed the building. Walls and ceilings crumbled. Many who were trapped inside were either seriously injured or paralyzed by panic. That's when, eyewitnesses say, a man appeared "out of nowhere" and took control and said, "Follow me, I have found the stairs."

For more than hour, this mystery man went up down those stairs helping the helpless and the hopeless get to working elevators 20 stories below. He saved countless lives that day, including one woman whom he carried on his back down 15 flights of stairs. He urged all of those people he led to the stairwell to go down and get out of the building as fast as they could.

Except while they were going down, he kept going up.

Until, finally, the whole building came down upon him.

It was six months after the buildings collapsed that his body was found next to several firefighters buried beneath 110 stories of steel, rock and wreckage. It wasn't until later — after The New York Times printed a story about those who escaped the buildings on 9-11 — that his parents figured out what happened to their son.

In the Times story, the survivors talked about this altruistic angel who saved their lives.

They didn't know who he was or where he came from.

But they knew this: He wore a red bandanna over his nose and mouth to help him breathe amid the suffocating smoke and debris.

His father was right.

Someday, that red bandanna would make him stand out and come in handy.

"I think it's beautiful that those UCF fans are touched enough by my son's story that they want to honor him by wearing red bandannas," says Jefferson Crowther of his son. "It's almost like they're sending a message and telling people that college sports needs to get back to doing things the right way."

Amid the sleaze and scandal that have infected intercollegiate athletics, leave it to a couple of college kids to make us realize that there are actually some things more important than winning football games. So seldom do we hear the true song of the sports anymore that we have almost forgotten what it sounds like.

It is the sound of two UCF students showing us that a football stadium can still be the great unifier — a place where everybody truly does come together for a common cause.

It is the sound in the voice of George O'Leary, UCF's tough, gruff football coach, softening when he hears the story of UCF fans wanting to honor a Boston College grad at the biggest home game of the season. O'Leary is from New York and has friends who died on 9-11. He looks forward to all the patriotic tributes UCF has planned Saturday night and will be glad to know that Welles Crowther's two sisters, Honor and Paige, will be at the game.

It is common knowledge that red has always been O'Leary's least favorite color.

Until now.

But, he, too, has suddenly become a huge fan of red bandannas and gives his blessing to UCF fans who want to wear them to honor Welles Crowther.

"He is a hero," O'Leary says. "I don't know of too many people who would have done what he did. I think honoring him is a great gesture by our fans."

So go ahead and put on your black and gold Saturday, UCF fans.

But make sure to wear some red, white and blue, too.

Mostly red.

Don't forget the red bandanna and the man who wore it.

It doesn't matter what your school colors are, a hero's cape goes with everything.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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